What difference does positivity make in the workplace?

Research demonstrates that it makes a significant difference, thank-you very much!

‘Mind-Sets Matter’ research showed that a positive mindset has clear, positive consequences for goal achievement. Employees who know the meaning and positive impact of their work are happier and vastly more productive, as demonstrated in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Moreover, employees who feel they have autonomy over their working day, have also been shown to have 10% higher job satisfaction, 5% improved performance and are 8% more innovative. Flowing from this, organisations with a high level of employee engagement report 22% higher productivity.

Even without evidence from research, at an intuitive level, most of us know that our work improves when our sense of personal well-being is dialled up. If I am feeling happy, I am more able to shirk off minor frustrations, more inclined to work co-operatively with colleagues, even the irritating ones, and my working day flies as I focus effortlessly on the tasks at hand.

Positivity vs Despair

Yet, we live in times where many people struggle to maintain a positive mind-set. This is a common experience even for those of us who enjoy the first world privileges of safety, opportunities and wealth. At a moment of unprecedented human accomplishment, we are beset by misgivings and predictions of doom. For many, the struggle to be positive is undertaken against a seeming onslaught of negative information about the state of the world.

I was lucky to attend a recent conference – Communities in Control – where a number of speakers had invaluable advice about antidotes to despair.

Future Crunch

Future Crunch is a collective of scientists, artists, researchers and entrepreneurs who believe science and technology are creating a world that is more peaceful, connected and abundant. They set out to tell good news stories that are rarely delivered to our attention: there is a reason for this, they claim. In evolutionary term, we are hard-wired to look for danger. Bad news will always have the power to hold our attention.

However, when the news is ceaselessly negative, it has the debilitating effect of fostering apathy, hate and cynicism – none of which affords us any evolutionary advantage! The most pressing danger to our well-being and – in some senses – survival, is the sort of despair that robs us of any sense of agency.

Future Crunch argues that, while we know the world is not a perfect place and we face huge challenges, we must hold two thoughts at the same time: ‘the world is getting better and the world is not good enough.’ If we want to change the story of the human race in the 21st century, they say, we have to change the stories we tell ourselves.

We need to tell the stories that foster intelligent optimism, they say. Look here and be cheered:

  • The Kofan people of Sinangoe, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, won a landmark legal battle to protect the headwaters of the Aguarico River, nullifying 52 mining concessions and freeing up more than 32,000 hectares of primary rainforest. Amazon Frontlines
  • Following China’s ban on ivory last year, 90% of Chinese support it, ivory demand has dropped by almost half, and poaching rates are falling in places like Kenya. WWF
  • The population of wild tigers in Nepal was found to have nearly doubled in the last nine years, thanks to efforts by conservationists and increased funding for protected areas. Independent
  • Deforestation in Indonesia fell by 60%, as a result of a ban on clearing peat lands, new educational campaigns and better law enforcement. Ecowatch
  • The United Nations said that the ozone hole would be fully healed over the Arctic and the northern hemisphere by the 2030s, and in the rest of the world by 2060. Gizmodo
  • $10 billion (the largest amount ever for ocean conservation) was committed in Bali this year for the protection of 14 million square kilometres of the world’s oceans. MongaBay
  • Germany produced 47% of its electricity from clean sources in the first five months of 2019, putting it well ahead of its 2025 targets. Renew Economy
  • The number of people killed in wars around the world has reached its lowest level in seven years, and battle fatalities have fallen by 43% since 2014. PRIO
  • In a landmark victory for Africa’s LGBTQI+ activists, Botswana’s High Court has decriminalized homosexuality, overturning a colonial-era law. Independent
  • The number of malaria cases in India was cut by almost half last year, an indication that the country’s malaria elimination programme is succeeding. HT
  • In Rwanda, 95% of babies are now receiving vaccinations for rubella, measles and polio, and it’s also on track to be the first country to eliminate cervical cancer. CNN

Professor Lea Waters and Strengths-based Positive Psychology

As the founding Director of the Centre of Positive Psychology at The University of Melbourne, Lea Waters is internationally renowned for her insights into strength-based interventions in child-rearing, education and workplace culture.

Waters argues that humans are hardwired to dwell on weaknesses but that, if organisations want to maximise success and happiness for their staff, they should be focussing time and resources into developing employee strengths.

The strengths-based, positive psychology approach recognises the potential of building on human strengths, rather than the traditional approach of healing damage or fixing problems.

An article by Ben Power states that:

“There is mounting evidence that a focus on strength not only improves organisational performance – particularly employee engagement – but also personal happiness. Research by the UK’s Corporate Leadership Council found that when managers focus on the weaknesses of an employee, the person’s performance declines by 27 per cent. When a manager focuses on the strengths of an employee, the person’s performance improves by 36 per cent.”

According to Waters, three factors are needed for a true strength:

  1. You do it well;
  2. You want to use it a lot; and
  3. It energises you.

If you’re good at something, but doing it drains you, it’s not a strength but a learned behaviour, she says. Waters says one of her learned behaviours is chairing meetings – she is good at performing the role of chair, but it doesn’t energise her.

Imagine how different annual performances appraisals would be if they were truly seen as an opportunity to focus and build on an employee’s strengths!

So, to foster positivity in our workplaces, we can:

  • Focus on what we, and our co-workers, do well.
  • Tell the stories of our achievements to create intelligent optimism.
  • Celebrate our strengths, and build on them.
  • And remember, tea (and chocolate) makes everything better!